US blacklists Israeli company behind Pegasus spyware

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The Biden administration said on Wednesday it was imposing new export limits on Israel’s NSO group, the world’s most infamous hacking company, saying its tools had been used to “carry out transnational crackdown.”

The US Department of Commerce said NSO Group and three other companies were added to the “entity list,” limiting their access to US components and technology by requiring government permission for exports. The department said putting these companies on the entity list was part of the Biden administration’s efforts to promote human rights in U.S. foreign policy.

“The United States is committed to aggressively using export controls to hold accountable companies that develop, commercialize or use technology to carry out malicious activities that threaten the cybersecurity of members of civil society, dissidents, government officials and organizations at home and abroad, ”United States Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said in a statement.

The announcement was another blow to the NSO Group, which was the subject of reports by a media consortium earlier this year that discovered that the company’s spyware tool, Pegasus, had been used in several cases of successful or attempted phone hacks against business executives, human rights activists and others. around the world.

Pegasus infiltrates phones to suck up personal and location data and surreptitiously controls smartphone microphones and cameras. Researchers have found several examples of NSO Group tools using so-called “zero-click” exploits that infect targeted mobile phones without any user interaction.

Tech giant Facebook is currently suing NSO Group in US federal court for allegedly targeting some 1,400 users of its encrypted WhatsApp messaging service with highly sophisticated spyware.

A company spokesperson did not immediately return a request for comment. NSO Group has hired former U.S. officials and public relations firms to help bolster its image in recent years.

Stewart Baker, a cybersecurity attorney and former general counsel for the National Security Agency, said the impact of Wednesday’s announcement on the long-term health of the NSO Group remains to be seen. He said the Commerce Department would have significant discretion in how it handles license applications related to the NSO Group and may face pressure from U.S. exporters and the Israeli government.

“We could see a situation where the sanction has been granted and this has great symbolic significance and some practical significance for NSO, but it is certainly not a death penalty and can over time be really aggravating,” he said. he declared.

Another Israeli spyware company, Candiru, has also been added to the entity list. In July, Microsoft said it blocked tools developed by Candiru that have been used to spy on more than 100 people around the world, including politicians, human rights activists, journalists, academics and political dissidents. .

A leading Russian company, Positive Technologies, and Singapore-based Computer Security Initiative Consultancy, have also been placed on the list for trafficking “cyber tools used to gain unauthorized access” to computer systems, the department said. . The Treasury Department imposed sanctions on Positive Technology, which has a large international footprint and partnerships with IT heavyweights like Microsoft and IBM, earlier this year.

(PA)

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